At 19, he left Britain to volunteer as an English teacher for migrants at Thai-Myanmar border, and he’s never looked back
Steve Gomersall runs Brighter Futures, a school he set up to educate poor migrants and set them on a path to university and more opportunities in life
Steve Gomersall could not speak a lick of Thai or Burmese when he first moved to Mae Sot, a district in western Thailand that shares a border with Myanmar.
Fast forward 10 years, and the now 29-year-old teacher has still yet to master the languages of his students, but has blended into the community just fine, having set up an English school for poor migrants.
“I came to Mae Sot for a variety of reasons,” the Briton says.
His journey to the Southeast Asian country began when he enrolled into the University of Hong Kong’s nascent MOEI programme. It was formed in 2008 to provide intensive English language education for migrant children and adults from Myanmar in an area situated along the Moei River at the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The programme, under HKU and the Hong Kong Jockey Club, has since been renamed NGL (Nurturing Global Leaders).
“I went from ... living for myself to having a heart for other people, seeing and valuing the local community. In Myanmar and Thailand, it’s the community that is important, not the individual. That had a transforming effect on me,” Gomersall says, adding that faith also led him there.
“As a Christian, I believe we shouldn’t just talk about Jesus but show the love of Jesus, and what better way to do this than to give people an education.”
Gomersall teaches at Brighter Futures, a school he set up in 2010 for migrants in an area known for its status as a trade hub because of the substantial population of Burmese migrants and refugees.
“The students I teach are all from Myanmar, and traditionally its education system has been quite poor. It has an annual passing rate of about 34 per cent, so every year, most of them fail. Those who pass are the ones that can afford private tutors for about HK$2,500 (US$320) a year, while most families only have an annual income of HK$125,” Gomersall says.
All 45 students at Brighter Futures wake up at 7am daily to begin their day of learning.
“The students gave up a lot to be here. They see a lot of their friends or peers already going to work in Bangkok or Chiang Mai and they’re getting pay cheques to support their families in the villages,” he says.
Because of this, Gomersall says employment to these families is valued more than an education, and many do not realise the importance of the latter.
“So for them to still be in school, that is a sacrifice. They face a lot of discrimination from others, and their communities look down on them because they are compared with their friends who are already contributing financially.”
The annual cost of maintaining Brighter Futures is at least HK$125,000, but students only pay a tuition fee of HK$60 annually, which covers education, lodging, utilities, food, and all emergency medical expenses. This is only possible with the help of donations.
“If students are accepted into universities, I will do anything in my power to raise the tuition money for them to further their education. And for this school year, we are in the process of raising HK$250,000 for [those who made it to universities].”
Dressed in a shirt lined in Karen tribe embroidery, jeans and a pair of flip-flops, Gomersall says he has no plans to go back to Britain despite his parents’ wishes.
“It took my mother quite a few years to come to terms with my decision to come here and open up a migrant school, but eventually she saw that this was something I am passionate about. While she would prefer for me to be by her side, she is letting me do what I love.
“I visit the UK and things seem strange to me, whether it’s the attitude or the culture. Every time I go back, it seems stranger, and I miss Asia, I miss my students, the food, the delicate spices and chillies, basically just the simple life,” Gomersall says with a shrug.
Every year, he works with participants from an HKU two-day teacher-training programme to guide volunteers.
“I am very grateful for them to come and help out at the school. It’s nice but they have to keep in mind that while it’s a bit of a holiday for them, to the students, this is their life.
“Yes, while they are here to teach them, befriend them first. This experience may change [the teachers’] views on life in return.”
He gives further advice for would-be volunteers: “Don’t put yourself above the students, as if you’re more socially qualified and better than them.”
Social innovation programmer Sandra Tai Siu-chieh, 24, who is from Hong Kong and taught in Thailand as a volunteer five years ago, could not agree more with Gomersall.
While she did not teach at Brighter Futures, she ventured into voluntary teaching elsewhere in Thailand with his help.
Tai says: “There are limited resources [in the place where I taught] – there’s no hot water, sometimes the electricity goes out and we have to teach students under candlelight. There are lots of uncertainties and you just have to try and fit in.”